03 Choosing a domain name

This is the second lesson in the domain names course. This course is being
archived at http://www.linuxchix.org/content/courses/domains/

This post opens with a long discussion of preliminaries. You may want to skim
it or skip down to the considerations section.

Here are the preliminaries:

1. About the top level domains
1. Choice of top level domain
2. Finding out which domains are available.

And here are the considerations that you should take into account when
choosing a domain name:

1. Availability
2. Personality and personalisation
3. Understandability
4. Professionalism

These are all factors that will vary depending on what you want the domain
name for and your own personal taste.

Throughout this lesson, I will use the term "vanity domain", which is a common
term for domains purchased for primary use by an individual for personal
websites and email addresses.

--- Preliminaries ---

1. About the top level domains

The last section of a domain name: the ".com", ".net", ".org", ".au" and so on
is known as a "top level domain" (TLD). Although it's possible to have a
arbitrarily large number of these, and there are some alternative domain name
systems that advertise a large number of them (see
http://www.opennic.unrated.net/ for example), most of the Internet relies on
the top level domains controlled by the Internet Corporation For Assigned
Names and Numbers ( http://www.icann.org/ ).

Basically, unless you're a sovereign nation, you're not going to get your own
top level domain. At best, you may someday meet someone who controls one and
is willing to give you a username@com email address -- yes, that would be a
valid address if .com had a mail server, which it doesn't seem to. You're
going to purchase a second level or third level domain (fourth only in fairly
rare cases).

The most common choice of vanity domain is one ending in .com, .net or .org.
This isn't the original purpose of those top level domains, it was meant to go
something like this:

- you get a .com if you're a US or multinational commercial enterprise
- you get a .net if you're a US or multinational networking provider
- you get a .org if you're a US or multinational nonprofit organisation (or
so I thought, I see http://www.icann.org/faq/ says "the noncommercial

There are some other international TLDs, see:
http://www.iana.org/gtld/gtld.htm and http://www.icann.org/faq/#regrules

If you're not US or multinational, you were meant to get a domain in your
national top level domain (.au for Australia, .ca for Canada, there's a full
list of them at http://www.iana.org/cctld/cctld-whois.htm )

Some people still protest that this should be respected. I don't run a
multinational non-profit called "The Puzzling Organisation" so I should I
really be able to register "puzzling.org"?

However, the horse bolted from this particular starting gate some years
ago now. Many .com addresses aren't owned by commercial enterprises etc etc.

My personal inclination is to explain this as due to an (understandable) lack
of foresight by the original designers of this system. They don't seem to have
considered that individuals would one day want a domain name. Nor was there
space for *products* (like movies or soft drinks) to have their own domain name.
I considered this issue seriously back in 2000, but while there were lots of
people lecturing me on the correct use of the international TLDs, there didn't
seem to be *any* place I could register a vanity domain and keep these people

In the end, I found out Australia did have a second level domain for
individuals (.id.au) but at the time you couldn't register third-level domains
under .id.au (since July 2002 you can), you had to get a fourth level domain
from the maintainers of such domains as wattle.id.au, dropbear.id.au or
echidna.id.au. Much as I love our native flora and fauna, I thought it was too
cutesy, and so "puzzling.org" it was.

2. Choice of top level domain

Another thing about the top level domains is that the most popular
international ones are pretty cluttered. As I said in the previous lesson,
finding an English word under .com, .net or .org is difficult and has been for

Recently some small nations with their own TLDs have started selling second
level domains internationally: .tv (Tuvalu) is probably the most popular of
these. You may have better luck under these: they're available through many
large registrars.

Unless you're intending to stick with the original purpose of the TLDs (I
shan't criticise you: pots, kettles, all that), here are my suggestions:


First, decide whether you'd prefer to get something under your own country's
TLD. Some countries still restrict them fairly tightly though and don't have
any space for registration of vanity domains, so you may be out of luck.
Others (like Australia) may require you to register a domain name that
resembles your real name somehow.

If you can't get or don't want a localised TLD, choose the name first and the
TLD second. Register the name in whatever TLD still has it free and which you
like best. Geeks seem to have a slight preference for .net, I'd go for .com
if you can get it, because everyone can spell it.

You could also look at the .name system: http://www.name/


If you are based in a single nation outside the US, I'd suggest getting a
domain under your country's TLD. Certainly, this is the most common thing to
do in Australia. If you're based in the US you could consider the .us TLD,
but I think it's much more common to use the international TLDs.

Otherwise you're probably after a .com and you should curse all the vanity
domain holders and product domains that have made them difficult to find.

There are a few other relevant TLDs: .biz, .pro ...

An alternative is finding someone with a domain you like and asking them for a
subdomain. I'd hesitate to do this: if they let their example.com registration
lapse, you'll lose subdomain.example.com too. But it will normally be free, and
I've heard it's a good way to get a domain with someone else's trademark in it
(the registrars will take away your domain if someone complains loudly about
trademark violation, even if your domain is clearly a comment on their
trademark -- pepsisucks.com or the like -- but the registrars don't control
subdomains). Of course, this doesn't guarantee you're safe from legal action.

3. Finding out which domain names are available

You can use the "whois" tool on Linux to find out about a domain name. If the
domain is taken, it will reply with the name and contact details of the
registrant. If you get something like this, the domain isn't taken:

No match for "ADSKJGKJFD.COM"

This used to only work for the international TLDs but seems a bit more
reliable now. Still, it's better to ask a registrar.

Alternatively, you can go to the home page of one of the registrars, say
http://www.register.com/ , type in the domain name and it will search all the
TLDs in which it can sell domains (I see register.com does about 40) and tell
you which TLDs your choice is available in.

Feel free to register a domain before I get to that lesson, although
register.com isn't the cheapest of registrars :)

You can't do this for subdomains, you'll need to contact the owner of the
domain and ask them about availability.

--- Considerations ---

Finally, you're fully briefed on top level domains, and you're ready to choose
your own second (or third) level domain. Here are your considerations.

1. Availability

I've mentioned this several times: you'll have a bit of a hunt for an available
domain. No two ways about it: you need to find a domain that is actually
available. Very occasionally, you may find that the owner of the domain you
want will give or sell it to you -- try asking if they don't seem to be using
the domain. You may also find that it has been taken by a "squatter" (a
speculator who buys up domain names to on-sell at a profit). I try not to
encourage these people, but if you REALLY want the domain...

Otherwise, try the following:

- pick a word and try grammatical variations ("puzzle", "puzzled", ...
- pick a word in a non-English language (you'll constantly be spelling this
out to people, but it can make for nice names)
- use a slang term
- use a name from a fictional universe
- use a two or three word English phrase ("puzzledmind", "puzzledthoughts",

If you're hunting for a business name:

- trying adding your business type after the name ("smith.com" ->
"smithconsulting.com" or "smithrobotics.com")
- use an abbreviation of your business name "smithrobinson.com" -> "sr.com" ->
"srconsulting.com" or "srrobotics.com")

2. Personality and personalisation

For vanity domains, this is a key factor. Your domain is going to be a little
word or phrase that is in your email address and in your URL. It may as well
be something you like. Obviously I can't give many tips here. I've known
people to take three years to find a domain name that they like.

One thing to consider though is whether anyone else is going to use the
address. There are, for example, a number of friends of mine using
@puzzling.org email addresses and something.puzzling.org domain names. If I'd
registered "mary.com" (which was taken when I decided to look for it and is
still taken now) I doubt there'd be many people using an @mary.com email
address aside from me. So if you want to share your domain with family and
friends by giving out emails and subdomains, you may want to go for something
more generic.

3. Understandability and ease of use

It's likely that at some point you're going to give your domain name to someone
over the phone, or have to write it down for them. So here are some tips:

- shorter is better because it minimises typos, and because the "fill in your
email address" gap on most paper forms is tiny
- don't misspell a word, or you'll be explaining "that's explanashion.org with
a sh, not a t" over and over again
- don't string more than two or three words together:
abrightcolddayinapril.com was apparently a good website but it makes you
squint at it a bit as a domain name

4. Professionalism

This will obviously be a big consideration if you're registering a domain for a
business site. You won't want to register "iamsohot.com" for a business selling
accounting software. On the other hand, the choice of a domain name for a
business is fairly obvious anyway: choose a domain based on your business's
name. The only trouble will be finding one which is available.

Professionalism can also be a consideration for vanity domains though.
"ibrokeintoyoursystem.com" may seem funny right up until the point where you're
applying for a job at a conservative software firm and sending your resume from

This is clearly a personal decision. In what circumstances are people going to
see the domain name and associate it with you? Are you OK with that? If you're
unsure, be conservative.

Some people solve this problem by registering multiple domains: one fun one,
one for their resume and professional identity. Alternatively, you could use